It was the evening of November 7, and the excitement in the YouTube comments beneath Operation Underground Railroad's online gala was reaching a fever pitch. "God bless you and ALL OF YOU," one excited viewer declared. Heart emojis rained down. "WITH MY LAST BREATH, TIM, I WILL HUNT THEM," wrote someone else.
When Tim Ballard himself took the stage, the hearts and comments professing love and an unmatched thirst for vengeance escalated yet again. Clad in a baseball cap, a blazer, and a white checked shirt, Ballard beamed at his audience. "The true heroes are you," he told them, "our supporters, those of you who have allowed us to take your light into dark places."
Ballard is the founder, former CEO, and the most public face of Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, a charity founded in 2013 with a mission of fighting human trafficking domestically and abroad. OUR says its frontline workers include "former CIA, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives," and for years has described them literally snatching children and young women from the hands of traffickers in daring raids. It has, it says, rescued literally thousands of victims.
More recently, as false conspiracy theories about elites abducting and sexually enslaving children have proliferated, the group's fundraising and prominence have risen to new heights, and it has attracted an intensely passionate and loyal following online; most online charity galas, it’s safe to say, do not attract hordes of fans swearing their undying loyalty. Ballard has not only been feted by celebrities and treated reverently by outlets ranging from ESPN to Fox News, but was even appointed by President Donald Trump to a council meant to guide federal anti-trafficking policymaking, which he co-chaired.
The specific stories that OUR tells are intensely cinematic: bold, heroic, and extremely difficult to fact-check. They are also not the entire truth.
The specific stories that OUR tells are intensely cinematic: bold, heroic, and extremely difficult to fact-check. They are also not the entire truth. An investigation by VICE World News focused on OUR's operations identified a divide between the group's actual practices and some of its claimed successes. What we found aren't outright falsehoods but a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.
Tim Ballard, Donald Trump, and Kirstjen Nielsen at a Feburary 2019 meeting about human trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Ballard has repeatedly claimed that OUR played a central role in a large anti-trafficking case in New York State and implied that it helped rescue a victim in that case when in fact, according to court transcripts and other records reviewed by VICE World News, she bravely escaped her trafficker on her own. Multiple law enforcement agencies OUR says it has partnered with or supported describe their relationships as insubstantial. (In response to detailed, specific questions concerning the allegations made in this article sent over a period of several weeks, OUR gave VICE World News two statements, which we've included in this story in full.) OUR has also declined to describe what precisely it does with the millions of dollars it says it spends overseas, citing concerns about operational security, though it did provide a list of countries in which it has worked.
Much of OUR's mystique is still focused on that overseas work. During the online gala, Ballard described a rescue in an undisclosed country in which, he said, Jessica Mass, OUR's director of aftercare, literally wrestled a padlock away from a trafficker as they were running to lock up and re-imprison young girls whom OUR and local police had just rescued.
Have you worked with Operation Underground Railroad? Do you know something we should know about the group? Contact the reporters at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional security send a number at which we can reach you on Signal or Whatsapp to email@example.com from a throwaway email account.
"Our aftercare team and Jessica saw something was happening and intervened," Ballard told the audience. "Laid down her life for these girls, for their liberation, and somehow wrestled that padlock out of the hands of that trafficker in this intense moment." He held something up in his hands: a gold padlock.
"This is the very padlock that had been used to lock these girls behind a jail cell," he proclaimed, triumphantly. The camera zoomed in close and stayed there.
For all its apparent unstoppable success, a small ripple recently appeared on the surface of OUR's relentlessly polished public image. A Utah elected official, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, announced in October that his office is investigating OUR, telling Fox 13, "We've received complaints and are in the process of reviewing those complaints."
The contours of the investigation aren't yet known, but it's not the first time Rawlings has reportedly considered investigating OUR; the New York Post reported in 2017 that he was contemplating a criminal probe of the organization, which ultimately seems not to have happened. Rawlings told VICE World News that he's currently unable to comment beyond the scope of the original announcement, writing in an email on December 10, “Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate your records requests or answer any particular questions at this time as the investigation is still vibrant.”
Several people familiar with the investigation, however, told VICE World News that it concerns whether OUR has, in recent years, made misleading claims to donors and the public about the work it does, and how directly involved it is in rescue operations. The investigation could also touch on the connection between OUR and current Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who has had a long public relationship with OUR as an advocate for—and a participant in—their work. (The Utah Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment, but confirmed that an investigation is in fact underway in a denial of a public records request filed by VICE World News. "Due to a pending criminal investigation by outside agencies involving Operation Underground Railroad, all records within the scope of your request are currently classified as protected," the office wrote. Through a spokesperson, OUR—a lawyer for which denied in October that it was being investigated—declined to answer questions about the investigation. In a statement to VICE World News it did say, in part, “If asked, O.U.R. will cooperate fully with any official inquiry into its operations.”)
One aspect of OUR's work involves its relationships with domestic law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, which it touts as central to its mission. But those relationships have in some cases been thin, and one law enforcement agency that received nearly $200,000 from OUR over a period of several years recently deemed the association simply not worth the bother. "While a hefty cumulative sum," said Chris Loftis of the Washington State Patrol, "candidly, in an organization of our size and a total multi-year budget well into the billions, it is not significantly budget impacting. We are quite comfortable with our decision to forgo any further donations from them and avoid further association with an organization that might provide distraction from the core mission." (The Patrol’s work, and its ties to OUR, were extensively covered in a New York Times investigation by reporter Michael Winerip this summer.)
Meanwhile, federal and state agencies that would, due to the nature of OUR's work, be expected to have relationships or at least familiarity with the group say they do not.
OUR says that due to concerns about operational security and survivor privacy, it can't describe exactly how it spends the millions of dollars it receives in donations on operations abroad. The organization provided VICE World News a list of 26 countries in which has worked, and, in response to a request for clarification, a list of specific cities or states where it says it has worked abroad, including Phnom Penh, Cartagena, Tripoli and “every one of the 76 provinces” of Thailand. That’s more specific than what’s publicly available in tax documents. The organization said, for instance, in tax filings that it spent $2,746,505 in 2018 on assisting law enforcement in freeing sex slaves and providing aftercare for victims in North Africa and the Middle East—an extremely general description of its activities in an extremely broad service area.
Even when OUR gets more specific about its work, particulars can prove difficult to confirm. Reputable and widely-known organizations providing aftercare to survivors of trafficking were unfamiliar with OUR, and experts raised serious questions about the work OUR claims it does.
Reputable and widely-known organizations providing aftercare to survivors of trafficking were unfamiliar with OUR, and experts raised serious questions about the work OUR claims it does.
The ultimate effect is uncomfortably murky. Millions of dollars are going into the organization, flying out of the pocketbooks of devoted supporters who ardently and sincerely want to rescue the world's most vulnerable and endangered children. But it's largely unclear what the organization is doing with that money, and where it is clear, it's not obvious that what it's doing is effective.
OUR, for its part, says that some of the lack of clarity is by design, to preserve the necessary privacy and dignity of trafficking survivors.
"We'll never tell you where they are," Ballard said, near the end of his gala speech, his eyes glistening, as he described the fate of the girls he said OUR had rescued from being padlocked once more into servitude by their traffickers. "But they are safe, and they are healing."
One of the most curious elements of OUR's domestic operations involves a trafficking survivor with the pseudonym “Liliana,” whom Ballard has repeatedly discussed, and whose story he has frequently invoked while arguing for a wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Liliana is a real person. VICE World News has identified the trafficking ring she was a victim of, and the federal case in which she bravely testified against her abusers. (While she testified under a pseudonym, we are not identifying the case to further protect her privacy.) But the story she and other survivors told in court—and which helped win a conviction against their traffickers—bears little but a broad resemblance to what Ballard has said publicly about it. Crucially, contrary to an assertion OUR has made in fundraising material, Liliana wasn't found or rescued by anyone: When she was just 17, and after years of rape, psychological manipulation and physical abuse, she escaped on her own.
Liliana wasn't found or rescued by anyone: When she was just 17, and after years of rape, psychological manipulation and physical abuse, she escaped on her own.
According to Liliana's testimony, and that of the women who were trafficked alongside her, she first met the man who would go on to traffic her in a village in Mexico when she was just about to turn 14 years old. He was at that point around 17, and wooed her romantically, she testified. "His family make me feel loved, that he care about me, that he loved me," Liliana told the court, testifying in English, her third language. "He was the first boyfriend that I had."
According to Liliana, she moved in with the man and his family relatively quickly, fleeing two male relatives who had been sexually abusive. Soon, she testified, the man told her that they were moving to the United States for a better life.
"He told me that we had to come to the United States because here in the United States we're going to make money, earn, to be able to provide to your family," she testified. "We will have a house and you will work for a couple of years. Then after that, we can come back and we can have kids."
The pair attempted to travel to the United States twice, along with other people, and both times were caught at the border by U.S. immigration agents and returned. The third time, in October 2010, they made it across, though Liliana did not specify in her testimony how they managed to get across the border into Arizona.
From Arizona, they traveled to Queens, New York, where things quickly and disturbingly shifted. The man, Liliana said, locked her in a house, left her an iPhone and an iPad, and said to call him when she was hungry. When she called, he passed Chinese takeout through a window into a locker. The windows, Liliana said, were barred.
Soon enough, the man told Liliana that he expected her to sleep with men for money, she testified. "At that time, I didn't understand what meant that," she testified. Once she understood, she got angry and refused, telling him, "That's not something we do."
"He didn't insist that night," she testified. "Then he came back again and said to me, 'Don't you see, you don't even speak English, you don't work. If you go outside, the police will arrest you."
A number of other Mexican women testified that they, too, had been trafficked by the man's family members, forced into prostitution in the United States with a combination of courtship, manipulation, and, once they arrived here, isolation and threats to kill their families back home. At first, their families believed the women were being taken away for a better life, one woman testified. "Our families were poor," she said, "so what they thought is that we had found some very good men."
The women testified that they were ferried by delivery drivers to clients in New York, Staten Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware. They reported that they were expected to have sex with 15 to 20 clients per shift, and that their traffickers would count the number of condoms they took with them, and the number they brought back, to keep track. The women were forced to hand over most of their money to their traffickers; one woman recounted seeing the man who trafficked Liliana hit her in the face when she said she didn't want to work. Another time, when he believed she was pregnant, he tried to force her to have a miscarriage.
"While they're in Mexico, they behave very well towards you," another woman testified in court, speaking in Spanish. "They court you, they treat you well, they say nice things to you, they say pretty things to you … The real nightmare is when you arrive here in the United States."
Liliana, another woman testified, "was the first who decided to leave," after three and a half years of abuse. "She told me right when she was leaving, 'I'm getting out of here,'" the other woman testified. Liliana called a cab, saying she was going to visit family, and left forever.
In many ways, Liliana's story is a typical—and typically horrifying—tale of criminal trafficking. She was, she testified, lured by a man who made romantic promises to her, then forced to do sex work due to his control over her immigration status, legal documents—she testified that he kept her birth certificate and school records—and his threats that he would hurt her family. Traffickers sometimes develop romantic relationships with their victims as a form of trauma bonding; the federal Office for Victims of Crime says that it’s common for traffickers to work to cultivate a sense of emotional and practical dependency in their victims. "In the U.S., immigrant women and children are particularly vulnerable to the deceptive and coercive tactics of traffickers," the ACLU has written, "because of their lower levels of education, inability to speak English, immigration status, and lack of familiarity with U.S. employment protections. Further, they are vulnerable because they often work in jobs that are hidden from the public view and unregulated by the government."
Ballard appears on Fox Business Network in March, 2019 to argue for the construction of a border wall.
The story Ballard tells about Liliana is different from the one that appears in court documents, though, and significantly more sensational in several key ways. His first public reference to her appears to have come in a January 2019 Fox News op-ed in which he quoted Nelson Mandela while arguing for the construction of a border wall:
Not long ago, a 13-year-old girl from Central America – let's call her "Liliana" – was kidnapped from her village, then trafficked into the U.S. at a location where there is no wall or barrier. From there, she was taken to New York City, where she was raped by American men 30 to 40 times a day.
The private anti-trafficking organization I founded over five years ago, Operation Underground Railroad, eventually helped Liliana escape her hell.
Ballard's story diverges from Liliana's testimony here in important ways. At no point did she ever testify that she was kidnapped. (The distinction between kidnapping and what she testified to is important; one common criticism of groups like OUR is that by focusing on sensational stories like those of abducted children, they neglect the more routine realities of trafficking, which far more often involves women and girls being victimized by people to whom they're close.) He described her as slightly younger than she was, and claimed that she had been trafficked "not long ago" when it had in fact been nearly a decade. He incorrectly stated that she'd come from Central America, not Mexico. Finally, he claimed that she had been raped twice as often as the 15 to 20 times per day that Liliana and the other trafficked women testified to at trial. (Regardless of the number of times, it remains a horrifying aspect of the story, and the trauma was surely severe either way. The women testified to experiencing violence and abuse from the johns they were forced to see: One said she'd been bitten and injured by one man, and raped at gunpoint by another.)
Ballard also stated that OUR helped Liliana "escape her hell." This strongly implies that it helped her flee her traffickers, which is flatly untrue.
Three days after the Fox News piece was published, Ballard appeared at White House event with President Trump, where he vigorously argued for a border wall, citing his years as an undercover operator, and again told Liliana's story, though without using her name. He stated that she had met Ivanka Trump privately.
One little girl I can tell you about. In fact, I introduced this little girl to Ms. Trump during a private briefing. This little girl was kidnapped in Central America. Eleven years old. Groomed for two years with the intent of getting her ready to come to America. Why? Because we are the highest-consuming nation of child pornography. We are the clientele that's the big money.
They brought this little girl through a part of the southern border where there was no wall, easily got her to New York City. And this is hard to hear but this is the truth, and everyone needs to hear this. This little girl — and this is very typical — raped for money every day, 30 to 40 times a day. If that's not a crisis, if that's not an emergency, I don't know what is.
Here, Ballard lowered Liliana's age to 11, repeated the kidnapping claim, and introduced a claim that she was groomed for two years before being trafficked, something not evidenced in court testimony. He further implied that Liliana was a "little girl" when introduced to Ivanka Trump, which she would not have been. (It's also unclear whether he is implying that Liliana was brought to the U.S. to be forced to produce child pornography, or if the existence of child exploitation material is somehow to blame for her trafficking. In either case, nothing in the court testimony suggested Liliana was forced to appear in pornography.) VICE World News contacted Ivanka Trump’s White House office for comment, but did not receive a reply.
Three days later, Ballard went further. He published an op-ed piece in the Deseret News, adding new detail to the story and quoting what he said were Liliana's own arguments for the construction of a border wall:
Liliana was kidnapped at age 11 from her village in Central America. After two years of grooming her for commercial sex, she was taken by her captors across the southern border at a location where no wall existed (approximately 70 percent of the border is wall-less). Her traffickers easily transported her to New York City, where she was raped for money up to 30-40 times a day for five years. She eventually escaped and my foundation is now caring for her as she prepares to testify in federal court against her captors. In accordance with U.S. laws, as a survivor of sex trafficking in America, Liliana has been granted legal status and will soon be a U.S. citizen. (The U.S. Attorney's Office has requested that we not share more details about this case until the trial is completed later this year).
Having reflected on her tragic plight, Liliana has recently weighed in on the current national debate. "Had there been a wall for me," she declared, "my captors would have been forced to take me to a port of entry. A U.S. officer might have seen my distress. I might have yelled out to them. I am currently working with Homeland Security agents on my case. I love them. I think they would have rescued me at the port of entry."
Several weeks after that, Ballard referenced Liliana in both in-person and written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings about trafficking at the southern border, asserting that he had "been approved" by the U.S. Attorney's office to share details of her experience.
Tim Ballard testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about "Human Smuggling at the U.S. Southern Border." Screenshot: C-SPAN 2
And several weeks after that, in written testimony submitted to the House Homeland Security Committee as part of hearings on family separation, he again referenced her. In the latter testimony, he put her age at the time of her kidnapping at 11; in the former, he put it at 11 or 12, the fourth different age he had given her. In both statements, he quoted her as saying, "I know many girls who came in like me…we know a wall could have saved us…"
It remains unclear precisely how OUR was associated with the case. A spokesperson for the U.S Attorney's office that prosecuted it, and lawyers involved in it, declined to comment to VICE World News. What is clear is that OUR's interactions with the private and public infrastructure dedicated to serving survivors of trafficking in New York, where the case was prosecuted, have left no discernible trace.
Public-records requests to New York State's Office of Victim Services returned zero documents mentioning OUR or Ballard between 2016 and 2020. The state's Department of Criminal Justice Services, when asked if it was familiar with the case as described in Ballard's op-ed or with OUR, referred VICE World News to the state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. A spokesperson there said they couldn't confirm any details of Ballard's story and that the office has no relationship with OUR, and recommended VICE World News contact providers in the state-funded Response to Human Trafficking Program. Two of those providers—Amy Fleischauer, director of survivor support services at the International Institute of Buffalo, and Diane Cameron Pascone, director of development at Unity House—said they were unfamiliar with both the case as Ballard described it and OUR. Another—Anita Teekah, senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon—said that she had never heard of the case as Ballard described it or of OUR, but that after looking into them, she had serious concerns, including with Ballard's assertion that "Liliana has been granted legal status and will soon be a U.S. citizen."
"That's not really how it works," Teekah told VICE World News. "You have to apply for your T visa, assuming you're eligible, and then you have to get the T visa. And there's been a lot of denials; the denial rate has gone up under this administration. After three years, you can apply for your green card, and that is not an automatic guarantee. And then you have your green card for 10 years, and then you can apply to naturalize. It's a long process."
Another concern was the way Ballard described OUR's relationship with Liliana, which Teekah said was inconsistent with the standards of direct-service providers. Safe Horizon, she said, has teams of attorneys to work with trafficking victims on integration and teams of social workers to do comprehensive case management and therapy. Shelter and housing opportunities, medical referrals, mental health and dental treatment, and employment training are top priorities.
"It's really the client who drives the process," she said. "But no one will say they're caring for someone. They'll reference clients. I mean, we have clients. It's a very paternalistic way to frame it. Even if they're housing individuals, you still wouldn't say you're caring for them. You would still refer to them as clients or residents, so there's still that agency that's inherent in the individual to make their own decisions."
A final concern was Ballard's focus on underage sex trafficking—"one small piece of all the human trafficking that we see both within the United States and globally"—and on a border wall, which she described as "ludicrous," given the ease with which a trafficking victim can be brought through legally at a port of entry.
According to Teekah, the Office of Refugee Resettlement would usually have a role in assisting a survivor of trafficking, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which provides funding for services, would likely be involved as well. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, which oversees ORR, said the agency is not available for media interviews. When asked whether ORR or ACF had a relationship with OUR, the spokesperson said that the Office on Trafficking in Persons—another agency under the ACF—has no formal relationship with OUR, and that its relationship with Ballard involved having met with him during a meeting with members of Trump's anti-trafficking council. A spokesperson for USCRI said that it does not work with OUR. Jean Bruggeman, director of Freedom Network USA, a leading coalition of anti-trafficking service providers and advocates, said that OUR was not a part of her coalition, and that its members are generally unfamiliar with and do not work with the organization.
The seemingly near-complete lack of ties between OUR and the established network of public and private institutions doing the difficult work of serving survivors of trafficking in New York specifically and the U.S. generally does not suggest that it did not provide Liliana with valuable support. What it does suggest is that the group has few relationships with the people and institutions who do this work, and little engagement with their normal processes. Perhaps this is a good thing; perhaps not.
"Good intentions," said Teekah, "don't really go very far."
As part of the reporting of this story, VICE World News reached out to Liliana for comment. She did not reply. We also identified two other organizations with which she has worked; one declined to comment, and the other responded shortly before publication, promising to provide a statement later in the day.
In response to a detailed and specific set of questions VICE World News asked OUR over a period of several weeks about the inconsistencies in Ballard's and OUR's statements about Liliana and the discrepancies between those statements and court testimony, as well as what the nature of the support it provided her was and when it first came into contact with her, OUR provided the following statement:
Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) is committed to supporting survivors in their healing process from sex trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.
To this end, O.U.R. collaborates with survivors to ensure what is publicly shared about their horrific life experience is done with permission and sensitivity.
O.U.R. will always respect and honor a survivor’s confidentiality about the when, where and how any assistance or aftercare support has been provided from our organization, just as any other aftercare organization would do, in whatever form it may take.
We have explained and provided factual information to VICE to disprove the inaccurate contentions raised by them while still honoring survivors privacy and rights. Unfortunately, we have come to understand VICE’s agenda-driven objective is to comb through years of information in an effort to find any, even minor, discrepancy, and to twist anything found into a negative portrayal of an honorable organization.
According to the timeline set out in court documents, Liliana would currently be in her early 20s. In a February 2019 Facebook post advertising a Valentine's Day card OUR said she had designed and which it was selling, the organization said she was "living with a loving family" while studying for her GED, giving the impression that she remained a child. It also called her "one of our survivors," and stated that she was "found and rescued" several years after being trafficked. As the details of her testimony made clear, and against tremendous odds, Liliana rescued herself.
As the details of her testimony made clear, and against tremendous odds, Liliana rescued herself.
In Ballard's telling, he never wanted to found Operation Underground Railroad. Fate—and, perhaps, a higher power—forced his hand. A devout Mormon, Ballard often tells interviewers that he felt called to combat the evils of child sexual abuse in a direct and far-reaching way; for religious publications, he has put it in more prophetic terms, even claiming that God told him, "Find the children." There's no doubting his personal commitment: Ballard and his wife have nine children, and he has said publicly that two of them were adopted after being rescued from trafficking in Haiti.
Ballard, a California native, says that he became a CIA officer in 2001—for less than a year, per his LinkedIn profile—and then spent a decade working for the Department of Homeland Security, specifically Homeland Security Investigations. (HSI is a division of ICE, though Ballard typically does not describe it as such. For the CIA to confirm to VICE World News that he was in fact an officer, Ballard would need to give permission; OUR declined to answer a question about whether he would be willing to do so.)
While at HSI, Ballard "investigated crimes under the jurisdiction of DHS to include drug smuggling, money laundering, arms smuggling and human trafficking," his LinkedIn says. That profile also says that he spent the majority of his career "investigating crimes against children to include cases dealing in sex trafficking, child sexual tourism and child pornography," and was a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Ballard told the Mormon publication LDS Living that he resisted working on crimes against children, but that his boss at the time insisted, due to Ballard's strong religious faith. "He felt my religious background would be a protection for me," Ballard said.
Ballard speaks to Google employees in 2016 as part of the Google Talks series. Screenshot via Google/Youtube.
Ballard has told interviewers that he became increasingly dissatisfied with how little he could legally do to combat trafficking abroad as an employee of the U.S. government. In his telling, everything changed for him when he learned of the story of a missing boy in Haiti named Gardy Mardy, and his father Guesno's frantic search for him. Gardy was technically a U.S. citizen, OUR has written, since he was born in the country while his parents were here on a fundraising mission. Ballard didn't have the authority to take the case, but, according to OUR, a question occurred to him: "What if we started an organization that could bring the necessary resources to countries around the world and rescue kids like Gardy?" Out of that idea, the organization was founded.
Ballard and a group of "operators," as the organization calls the people who participate in their rescues, headed to Haiti to find the boy. He was never found, though OUR says it continues to search for him, and has raised money to get his family out of Haiti after it became unsafe for them to stay. "While we haven't found him YET, we keep looking," an online fundraiser for the Mardy family from 2019 read. "And everywhere we look, we find more kids."
In 2013, the year of the Gardy mission and OUR's founding, the organization described itself in tax records as mainly composed of ex-military members, and the missions were described as being primarily abroad. "RESCUE TEAMS ARE COMPRISED OF HIGHLY SKILLED EX-NAVY SEAL, CIA, AND OTHER OPERATIVES," a description on a 2013 990 form read, a tax form that all 501c3 charities are required to make public. "THESE TEAMS WORK IN CONJUNCTION WITH AN [sic] IN FULL COOPERATION WITH LOCAL POLICE FORCES AND GOVERNMENTS TO LIBERATE CHILDREN AROUND THE WORLD."
OUR has explicitly likened itself to the abolitionist movement of the 1800s with the name of the organization itself, with a film it produced in 2016 titled The Abolitionists, and with a book penned by Ballard, Slave Stealers: True Accounts of Slave Rescues Then and Now. In 2017 the organization began offering a painting for sale which depicted, as the organization put it, "the Abolitionists of yesterday and today, including Tim Ballard and his wife." The painting depicted Ballard, his wife Katherine, and another figure carrying sleeping children down a railroad track, while figures including Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln looked on approvingly, holding lanterns to light their way.
OUR became known for a type of aggressive, muscular, faux-military approach, which favored a dramatic form of rescue. A string of starry-eyed journalists joined Ballard and co. on missions where he and other OUR operatives pretended to be grinning johns in foreign countries, attempting to buy children; as the deal was being struck, local police would burst in, throwing everyone to the floor and hauling the traffickers off to jail.
A 2015 Foreign Policy profile of the group notes that that particular approach–rescuers, often white, male and devoutly religious, posing as johns in developing countries–was first seen in rescues by the Christian group International Justice Mission (IJM). The model and philosophy immediately proved controversial. Critics pointed out that women "saved" in this type of operation frequently face arrest or deportation, and it seems obvious that even victims of trafficking who sincerely want to be rescued might be further frightened or traumatized by a raid-style approach. (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof faced similar critique when he embarked on his own anti-trafficking crusade, making himself both a chronicler of and a player in what's been termed the "rescue industry.")
Despite the controversy, the raid approach proved popular because it was, put simply, consumable: The rescues are often filmed or photographed, allowing donors and supporters to cheer along from home.
Despite the controversy, the raid approach proved popular because it was, put simply, consumable: The rescues are often filmed or photographed, allowing donors and supporters to cheer along from home. Foreign Policy quoted the renowned sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, who said that IJM's approach had become the "emulated standard." In her book Brokered Subjects, Bernstein called it the "media-friendly militarized humanitarianism" that has characterized the approach of many faith-based anti-trafficking organizations since at least the 1990s. Similar to Ballard, IJM's president Gary Haugen even displayed his own collection of padlocks to a journalist from The Nation, saying they'd been taken from brothels in India and Cambodia, raided in joint operations by IJM and local police. (IJM partnered with Operation Underground Railroad on an operation in 2014. A spokesperson told VWN that IJM is not currently partnered with Operation Underground Railroad.") Update: After publication, an IJM spokesperson added the following statement: “The Dominican Republic Anti-Trafficking Police Unit (PETT) was the convener of this operation. IJM did not partner with OUR but at the request of police, IJM was invited to provide crisis care for the survivors upon rescue as well as psychosocial and legal services after it. As mentioned, International Justice Mission has not and is not currently partnered with OUR.”
An OUR operator looks on approvingly while conducting a training in Haiti. Screenshot from the movie Operation Toussaint/Amazon.
Because many anti-trafficking organizations have specifically Christian, often evangelical, ties, and resist the idea that there's such a thing as voluntary sex work, their members and some of the people supposedly being saved may not see things the same way.
Bernstein's book describes IJM "rescues" where women taken from a brothel in Cambodia used bedsheets to climb out of the window and escape from where they were taken and return to the brothels. In another attempted rescue in India, she writes, "local sex workers threw rocks at their would-be liberators." Bernstein also writes that local activists “collaborated to shut down” an office in Thailand after those activists became offended by their "standard practice" of breaking down doors to brothels "regardless of the age or the willingness of the occupants." (Bernstein was citing the doctoral thesis of Andrea Maria Bertone, who interviewed those Thai activists directly. Bertone wrote that IJM at the time worked with local police in northern Thailand to execute these brothel raids, writing, “IJM’s logo was very similar in appearance to the U.S. Department of Justice’s logo; therefore, Thai police mistook the American group for an arm of the U.S. government and IJM did not disabuse them of this belief.”)
Despite these protests, she adds, "IJM continued to work in Northern Thailand despite a great deal of Thai and international criticism leveled against them."
Bertone also wrote:
[F]ormer American law enforcement officers employed by IJM would physically break down brothel doors in Thailand and ‘rescue’ the girls and women out of the brothels. IJM staff made little or no effort to determine if the females were women or children, nor did they make a distinction between those who were forced into prostitution and those who were working as prostitutes voluntarily. IJM did not have appropriate places to house these girls and women after they were ‘rescued.’ Therefore, IJM locked them in other dwellings, or asked, at the last minute, other shelters in Northern Thailand to take the girls and women.
When asked for comment on these specific incidents, IJM did not dispute them. (Update: After publication, IJM clarified that their office in Thailand was not shut down, despite the reported protests from activists; we’ve updated our story to reflect their comment, and added more context on the allegations reportedly made by Thai activists.)
The controversies in countries where the "rescues" take place are often not reflected in media coverage or public support back home. OUR has proven particularly irresistible to big organizations and celebrities looking to partner with a worthy cause: ESPN aired a glossy feature video in 2018 touting a partnership between Ballard and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, while superstar baseball player Bryce Harper recently urged his Instagram followers to support the group for Giving Tuesday, and former Survivor contestant Joe Anglim modeled some t-shirts made to fundraise for OUR. In the painting of Ballard and his wife alongside Harriet Tubman, the artist Jon McNaughton also included some of OUR's more famous presumptive supporters: Former Republican Congresswoman Mia Love beamed from a back row next to talk show host Montel Williams, now-embattled motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Glenn Beck, and actor Ashton Kutcher, a spokesperson for whom says he is not a supporter and is not affiliated with the organization.
Ballard and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, as seen on ESPN's "Sunday Night Countdown." Screenshot via ESPN/Youtube.
OUR has also made friends in high places politically: President Trump is among the group's many fans. Ballard was one of the people Trump appointed to serve on the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking, a group tasked with advising the federal government on anti-trafficking policy—he was, in fact, its co-chair. In his February 2019 appearance at the White House, he claimed that his work as both a DHS agent and with OUR had shown him the need for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
"We are having to do operations in Mexico, our foundation, working with law enforcement, to be—essentially become the wall because there is no wall," he told Trump. "We're forward deployed. It's like trying to catch flies with chopsticks. It works. We can make it work. But if we had a big, you know, fly swatter, which would hit the wall, that would be a lot better. It stops it."
Before Ballard was taking meetings with Trump, OUR had begun building significant ties with the Utah political establishment. Current Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in 2015 that before taking office the year prior, he'd made a secret trip to Colombia with the group to rescue what a local newspaper account called "child sex slaves" there. Reyes has subsequently appeared at many OUR fundraisers, and was a member of their advisory board, an apparently volunteer position. (The Utah Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment from VICE World News.)
"It's a good story. It's sexy: 'We've got this paramilitary group in Utah that goes to other countries and frees child sex slaves, they come swooping in with local law enforcement, arrest these bad guys.'“
Some journalists—particularly in Utah, where OUR is based—are also fans of the organization. "The Utah press have been cheerleaders for OUR," said Kenneth Lynn Packer, a longtime Utah journalist who's written critically about OUR, particularly its ties with Reyes. "It's a good story. It's sexy: 'We've got this paramilitary group in Utah that goes to other countries and frees child sex slaves, they come swooping in with local law enforcement, arrest these bad guys.'" Packer has written about OUR for the website American Crime Journal; the site's editor has written that OUR has threatened the site with legal action. That legal threat itself proved interesting. Both Packer and ACJ editor D.D.L. Moore noted that OUR appears to have retained the services of Kirton McConkie, the powerful law firm VICE has previously described as the Mormon Church's "legal alter ego,"further reflecting the degree of power and influence the organization has in Utah.
OUR has been extremely successful in its fundraising efforts. Tax documents show that in 2018, it raised more than $17 million through contributions and grants; in 2019, that number topped $21 million. This was well-compensated work for its chief executives: In 2018, Ballard made $343,022, while all other chief executives made between $100,000 and $180,000. OUR announced in 2019 that Ballard would step down as CEO in April of that year and "continue to focus on sharing the mission of O.U.R. throughout the world as its Founder," and would no longer draw a salary. (In 2019, before that April 1 cutoff, Ballard reported a salary of $106,000.)
To a casual observer, some of their expenditures could look a little lopsided. In 2018, OUR reported giving out just $362,633 in grants and other forms of domestic assistance. Meanwhile, it reported office expenses of over $1 million, and compensation of $924,000 to top staff. Other funds, it said, were spent overseas, the bulk in the Middle East (more than $2 million) and a smaller amount ($908,000) in Central America and the Caribbean.
Its success, meanwhile, has also led to the creation of and ties to other organizations: In 2017, Ballard was named as the CEO of the Nazarene Fund, a charity founded by Glenn Beck which claims to rescue and aid persecuted Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East. Tax records show that the Nazarene Fund is an LLC—not a nonprofit—that is a subsidiary of OUR. (Today, the sole members of Nazarene Fund's board are Ballard, Glenn Beck, and David Barton, a controversial scholar who has been described as a "fake historian" who's "received little formal historical training" and is dedicated to promoting the idea that America was founded on Christian ideals.)
Two other for-profit companies are also subsidiaries of OUR. The first is Deacon Inc., which OUR says "employs independent contractors to perform tactical and security operations." It has no website or phone number, and its officers, according to Nevada business records, are all chief executives at OUR. The other subsidiary is Underground XFit LLC, which operates a Crossfit gym; the gym's website says, "We exist to provide financial backing to rescue children from sex trafficking and bring awareness to this cause all while improving peoples' lives through fitness, nutrition, and knowledge of the body." More recently, Ballard's wife Katherine started a new organization, Children Need Families, which says it gives grants to families looking to adopt. It, too, does not appear to be a nonprofit. (While LLCs can still have charitable purposes, organization as a 501(c)(3) is the gold standard, because of the high level of financial transparency required. 501(c)(3) organizations issue tax documents each year, Forms 990, that are meant to detail exactly where their money goes. OUR issues those for itself, but is not required to go into that level of detail for subsidiaries that are LLCs. CNF did not respond to a request for comment from VICE World News, nor did Mercury One, the Glenn Beck-founded charitable organization that founded the Nazarene Fund.)
OUR's many efforts over the years have generated waves of supportive press coverage. More recently, though, Ballard drew new attention to himself and the organization by giving what many saw as implicit support to a conspiracy theory that the furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children through its website.
"With or without Wayfair, child trafficking is real and happening!!!" he tweeted. "The children need us." In a second tweet, he added, "Reports of child abuse cases are millions higher this year than they were last year. This is not a small thing or a conspiracy theory, this is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world."
At a July 2020 OUR rally, a demonstrator holds a sign with the QAnon-related hashtag #saveourchildren. OUR has specifically explained the connotations of this hashtag and distanced itself from it on its website.
"No question about it, children are sold on social media platforms, on websites and so forth," Ballard said in a follow-up video. "I'm glad people are at least waking up to it, especially right now." When the New York Times contacted him for comment, he asserted that conspiracy theories about child trafficking weren't necessarily a net negative. "Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes," he said. (In yet another video, Ballard added, "There are conspiracy theories on every topic … We have hundreds of thousands of supporters. We can't control what they say or do.")
OUR subsequently issued a statement clarifying that it wasn't supporting an unfounded conspiracy theory, writing, "Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) does not condone conspiracy theories and is not affiliated with any conspiracy theory group in any way, shape, or form." Nonetheless, through seemingly giving some credence to a theory that other reputable organizations see as deeply far-fetched, OUR seems to have connected with a conspiratorially-inclined audience, as journalist Melissa Gira Grant recently pointed out in The New Republic. A search of the hashtag #operationundergroundrailroad on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter brings up a wealth of QAnon content, some of it quite bizarre. A widely-shared Facebook post, for instance, claims that four celebrities who died by suicide were in fact, working on a documentary about child trafficking and were murdered to silence what they might have otherwise uncovered.
In 2015, the Washington State Patrol began a program called Operation Net Nanny, which involves troopers going undercover in chat rooms to pose as children and arrange rendezvous with men who, when they turn up for the assignations, are then arrested. According to Loftis, the Patrol spokesperson, the program has resulted in 294 arrests, with a 97 percent conviction rate. The program was set up with OUR support—between 2015 and 2020, according to Loftis's figures, the group gave a total of $185,522 in grants to the Washington State Patrol.
Earlier this year, though, the Patrol decided to stop accepting OUR money. Loftis said that it did so partly because the money wasn't needed, and partly because it simply didn't want to be involved with OUR.
"We'd gotten inquiries about them on various things," Loftis told VICE World News. "The political activity and the religious affiliations of some of their most prominent folks—things we just don't care about. We're apolitical. We're not religious, obviously, as a state agency. The types of things people were calling and asking us about were things outside of our concern zone. Our concern is protecting kids in the state of Washington. I wish I could say that that is a diminishing concern, but it's actually a growing concern. It's a very complex situation. It's very involved. And anything that's going to be a distraction to us rather than a support of us, we have to navigate away and go towards being focused on the job."
The Washington State Patrol was one of 21 groups on a list OUR recently provided to VICE World News of domestic law enforcement agencies which it has supported or with which it has partnered. The list was, OUR stressed, "not all-inclusive, as confidentiality agreements required by some law enforcement entities prevent OUR from publicly speaking about the partnerships." Those agencies on the list that responded to requests for comment or returned public-records requests mainly described tenuous ties to OUR.
Police in Fairfield, California, for example, replied to a public records request about their relationship to OUR with a copy of a press release introducing the department's newest member, K-9 Frankie—a 20-month-old labrador retriever trained to detect hidden electronic storage devices. According to the release, Frankie's acquisition was funded by a donation made by the Doterra Healing Hands Foundation through OUR. Police could find no other records of dealings between OUR and the department.
A spokesperson for the sheriff's office in Seminole County, Florida, for her part, was puzzled when told by VICE World News that OUR says it has supported the office, and initially said that she was unfamiliar with the organization. She then explained that the department has a dog named Siri, who is trained to sniff out thumb drives, hard drives, and other electronic devices, and that OUR had recently requested that the dog attend a fundraising event in Longwood, Florida. Siri was otherwise engaged, but the sheriff's office did give permission for a video about the dog to be shown. VICE World News was able to identify one tie—according to a 2017 video about Siri, the dog was, like Frankie, purchased with funds from a grant from the Doterra Foundation, in partnership with OUR. (Doterra is a multi-level marketing company that sells essential oils and is popular with Mormon women; Healing Hands is its charitable foundation. In response to a question from VICE World News about whether OUR or Doterra paid for Siri, a spokesperson responded, "The doTERRA Healing Hands Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that has donated to Operation Underground Railroad for domestic and international rescue operations and aftercare, including the funding of police dogs.")
Kurt Sorenson, a police captain in Sutherlin, Oregon, said that like many agencies, the Sutherlin Police Department has an undercover officer using apps where adults look to meet kids. OUR has trumpeted its support of this program, tweeting, "With O.U.R.'s support, the Sutherlin Police Department in Oregon arrested 2 adult males in 2 operations. In one case, an adult male attempted to begin an online relationship with a 15-year-old female and then arranged to meet at a location and where he was arrested.” Via email, Sorenson described the nature of OUR's support: "Operation Underground Railroad paid for our officer to attend training. I'm sure we could find specifics, but looking through old e-mails it looks like they at least paid for 3 nights hotel room for the officer for $309.51. I think the course may have been free. It looks like they also paid for his meals."
In an email, Sheriff Nathan Sickler of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office in Oregon said, after being told that VICE World News was asking questions in part because OUR is under investigation in Utah, "We have just began to work with OUR as we have started a Anti-Sex Trafficking Task Force and a Task Force to address Internet Crimes Against Children in Jackson County and we are in process of an agreement to accept funding to help with equipment/office supplies for this. Our relationship with OUR is newer and we will be monitoring the status of the investigation prior to moving forward with accepting funding or furthering our partnerships."
A spokesperson for the Taylorville, Illinois police department, when contacted about its relationship with OUR, said he had never heard of it. Further inquiries revealed that OUR had in fact given the department a grant of "a couple grand" for equipment.
John Jurkash of the Whitestown, Indiana police said that after members of the department met OUR representatives at a conference in 2018, the group donated around $5000 to help the department buy software to set up a cyber forensics investigation division, and made another donation in 2019.
Apart from the Washington State Patrol, the group VICE World News was able to identify that received the most substantial support from OUR was the ILEAS Foundation, an Illinois non-profit. In July 2018, OUR gave it a $100,000 grant earmarked for computer equipment for a task force dealing with internet crimes against children; some of the money went to Cellebrite, an Israeli firm that sells tools used to crack iPhones.
Records obtained by VICE World News show what OUR grant money given to the ILEAS Foundation went to buy.
OUR's president of operations regularly emailed the foundation reminding it to update OUR on the uses to which the equipment was being put and asking for general overviews of not yet publicized cases. "We routinely relay such anecdotal stories," he wrote, "to donors who revel in such accounts."
Ballard and OUR are aware that aspects of their work have become controversial. In a YouTube video in October, Ballard, holding a clipboard and beaming with intense jollity at his audience, responded to some of the most persistent criticisms of the organization. His high 2018 salary, for instance, reflected the security costs he'd had to pay to make his home safer following "crazy death threats," he said, and said he was instructed to count those expenses as part of his salary by the organization’s accountants. He takes celebrities on operations to raise awareness, not for personal glory. And, responding to criticisms that OUR simply funnels work to other organizations and doesn't do the heavy lifting itself, he said, "We have many, many partners. This is not to say that we don't also possess the expertise in the field. The full-time people at OUR are former law enforcement who have worked these types of cases for decades. Same with our aftercare department. Same with every part and department of OUR. However, we are also smart enough to understand that there are certain cultural sensitivities in certain countries, that if we can find a partner who can do certain things better than we can do, we're not so proud that we're not going to recognize that and empower those groups to jointly combat the problem. The goal is to rescue kids. So we're gonna work in a way that does that effectively, quickly and safely as possible. That means we partner with people."
The allure of Operation Underground Railroad's story wasn't built on partnerships or attention to cultural sensitivity, though. Its most devoted fans continue to lavish money and praise on the organization because they are invested in the idea of a group of tough, all-American ex-military types working to directly confront the evils of sex trafficking in ways the government can't. The allure of that type of group remains as strong as ever; in recent years, more and more similarly styled organizations have began filling the landscape, promising that they, and they alone, are able to venture deep into the underground world of sex trafficking to rescue the women and girls held therein. It seems unlikely that anything would shake them in their belief.
In response to detailed lists of questions from VICE World News about the reporting in this story, OUR issued a statement that reads, in full:
Operation Underground Railroad's (O.U.R.) mission is to help rescue and protect victims of child sex trafficking and exploitation, bring their perpetrators to justice, provide survivors with life-saving aftercare services, and raise awareness of this worldwide scourge.
O.U.R. strives to be a force multiplier, working closely with law enforcement globally to understand how to provide the needed tools and resources, within the confines of each country and agency structure, to safeguard children from harm and bring predators to justice while delivering optimal outcomes and tangible impact.
In carrying out this mission, O.U.R., an organization not affiliated with any religion or denomination, has sought to comply with all laws that regulate non-profits since its inception in 2013. We have remained highly focused on our financial stewardship of donor funds and being transparent about O.U.R.'s use of the great financial support we receive from our donors. If asked, O.U.R. will cooperate fully with any official inquiry into its operations.
We are proud to help play a part in giving better lives to children around the world. Keeping child predators away from our children is paramount and we will always support legal efforts to protect children.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that IJM declined to comment on whether they have any current partnerships with OUR. They say they do not have any current partnerships with OUR.
Update: After publication, a spokersperson for Ashton Kutcher reached out to clarify that he is not a supporter of, or affiliated with, OUR. This article has been update to clarify that.